Normally our fall trip would take us into Canada; sometimes trekking all the way up to Nova Scotia, sometimes just camping at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Other times driving to Agawa Bay, or making the full circle around Lake Superior, however 2020 has been everything but a normal a year. The Canadian border was closed, so we would travel a different direction. We opted to head west to Ouray, Colorado, then south for Texas, before returning home.
Colorado has challenges unique to the mountains. Driving from Ouray, to Silverton, takes you along a route known as the Million Dollar Highway. This road offers some of the most spectacular sights in the San Juan Mountains along some of the most dangerous roads. Dangerous in that the narrow road winds and turns following the mountain side. Speeds are often reduced to 10 or 15 MPH to maneuver the multiple switchbacks in the road. Driving this route can raise the hair on your arms and the back of your neck as most of this road has no guardrails.
There are places where the white line marking the edge of the driving lane is literally on the edge of a cliff that falls hundreds – if not thousands – of feet to the valley below. The cliff is so close to the road and so steep, there isn’t room to put up guardrails. With all her beauty, the road is unforgiving and the consequences severe. If you’re one of those drivers who is constantly hearing the rumble strips on the side of the pavement, you should not drive this highway. There is no room for error.
Colorado offers beautiful fall colors and spectacular sights that can easily humble a man. Thousands of acres of brilliant gold aspen leaves and dark green pine trees against the mountain sides and down into the valleys, are a sight to behold – one you’ll never forget. Looking up at rocky cathedrals that reach into the purest of blue skies is humbling. It makes me realize how small I am in the midst of all of this majesty. Water babbling over rocks in the creeks and rivers, along with the sound of the wind, creates a symphony of nature’s best music. It’s absolutely breathtaking – or could it be the altitude?
Our home in Minnesota is at an elevation of 750 feet above sea level. Silverton, Colorado, where we would be camping, sits at 10,505 feet. That difference can make breathing difficult as the air is very thin. Albeit the most important, breathing is just one of the many challenges that come with high altitude. Thin, dry air changes all the rules for baking, too; something I love to do.
One of our destinations in the mountains would be Lake City. We rented a cabin from our new friends (whom we had yet to meet) John and Lynne. Lynne said she had heard many stories about us from her dear friends, Kenny and Gail - Melissa’s aunt and uncle from Texas. Lynne invited us to dinner one night, saying she felt like she already knew us and couldn’t wait to meet in person.
I was flattered to learn they had heard about my pies. I said I would bake a pie for them if I could use their kitchen. Lynne told Melissa she had also heard Gail raving about my dinner rolls but she didn’t want me to be stuck in the kitchen too long. I laughed because I love being in the kitchen, “Tell Lynne she will get the pie and the rolls and she can still order up to two entrees.”
It wasn’t long after I extended my offer that Melissa and I were hiking up the side of a mountain. The path followed the edge of a stream with several little waterfalls. The thin air had me huffing and puffing my way along the trail. We wanted to, or should I say needed to, be off the mountain before the sun went down behind the other mountains across the valley, leaving us in a cold shadow. Still, we wanted to make it to the top of the trail on the Continental Divide, where there was a really cool waterfall. We were both getting tired, although our dog June seemed to be doing just fine with energy to spare.
Each time I wanted to quit and turn around, Melissa would say, “Let’s just go a little further – ten more minutes.” When we had climbed ten more minutes, she would be ready to call it enough and start back down the mountain.
“Let’s go just a little farther.” I would tell her, “I’m pretty sure I can hear the waterfall now.” I’m not really sure if I was hearing the falls or if the sound was like a mirage of an oasis in the desert. Although tired, we eventually encouraged one another to the top of the hill.
Taking deep intentional breaths, we rested on a log alongside the waterfall. I started wondering just how high we were. “We must have climbed about 2,000 feet.” I figured. That’s when it occurred to me that Lynn’s house is at an elevation of 9,200 feet.
I’ve read that anything over 3,000 feet really changes the way baking works – especially when working with yeast and breads. There were high expectations for my pie and rolls. I’d never baked at high altitude. What if they didn’t turn out? Would I be shunned from baking in the San Juan Mountains for the rest of time? It was like driving one of those roads without guardrails; there was nothing there to keep me from falling. I started to feel a little panicky. “Maybe it’s just the thin air.” I justified as we started down the big hill.
Back at our cabin, I immediately got online to research high altitude baking. The article read: Pies aren’t as affected as yeast breads, although there can be differences… “Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah. Blah.” I rebuked the article. “I have my pies down pat. I don’t need any advice on pies – let’s get to the differences in bread making.”
I made notes: Cut the yeast by one third. Use cold water and add a quarter cup. Knead the dough with oiled hands, not floured. Watch the rising time and remember the rolls will bake quicker. “Got it!” I declared with confidence.
When we got to Lynn’s house, she showed me around the kitchen. It’s wasn’t long before I had a peach pie in the oven. I started my dinner rolls. I kept a close eye on the pie baking, as well as the dough while it was rising. Hmm. The pie seemed to take a little longer to bake before the filling boiled. “It must be the high altitude.” I concluded.
Soon, I took the pie from the hot oven. Everyone oohed and aahed at its wonderful appearance and sweet aroma. I was quite proud of the pie, however, I was concerned that it wouldn’t have enough time to fully set up before dessert was to be served. We set the pie outdoors for faster cooling.
I put the rolls in the oven as everyone was sitting down to eat. Again, I kept a close watch on them. When the rolls came out of the oven, I brushed the tops with melted butter and served them. The moment of truth was at hand; I watched for facial expressions as each person bit into their rolls. Everyone complimented how good they were. I tried to remain humble when everyone took a second roll, but inside I was dancing and cheering myself, “Yes! Yes! I did it. Who needs guardrails? Even at high altitude, I nailed the rolls perfectly!” I couldn’t wait to serve the pie.
With a stack of clean dessert plates, I took a knife and cut into my beautiful, perfect pie on the kitchen island. What? Why wasn’t the knife gliding through the crust? In the bottom of the pie pan it felt like I was cutting through a rock and my usual light, flaky top crust was hard and crisp like a cracker. When I lifted the first slice, the bottom crust stayed in the pan and the filling was runny. Suddenly, I felt like I was careening over the white line on the edge of the road and plummeting into the harsh valley below. There was no guardrail to save me.
I’ve always said, “Crust is easy and it will make or break your pie.” If you have a mediocre filling but a good crust, people will say, “The crust was great.” On the other hand, if you have a really good filling but a bad crust, people will note, “The crust was kind of tough.” I took a bite of the pie. The filling was really good, but all I could think is “This crust is lousy.”
“What happened?” I wondered as I retraced every step of making the pie. I did everything the way I always do. Then I remembered before I made the pie, boasting to myself, “I don’t need any advice on pies…” I guess it is true, the mountains do have a way of humbling a man – in many ways.
The heavy dose of humility was well deserved and brought me down a few steps in ways that I needed to be. I took another bite of the lousy pie I had baked, then thanked God that I was in the kitchen and not on the mountain pass as I went arrogantly speeding down a road with no guardrails.
This story began on the North Shore of Lake Superior. My friend of over thirty years, Stu Stetter, came to visit. His friend Martin and Martin’s dad, Marty, came with him. The four of us would enjoy a guy’s get-away, in the north woods.
We set up camp at Esther Lake on the Arrowhead Trail. With only four campsites, it’s really quiet, peaceful and very dark at night. Stu and I stayed in my Scamp; Marty and Martin pitched a tent. Before we set out to paddle on Devilfish, the next lake over, we met Travis. He was set up in the campsite next to us. He came to the north woods to “get away from it all,” relax and do a little fishing.
We learned Travis was from Knoxville, Iowa - about forty-five miles from our hometown of Ottumwa. He did some work in Ottumwa, as well. Names started being dropped and, although we had never met before, it turns out we knew a lot of the same people. Stu asked Travis if he ever listened to TOM-FM when he was Ottumwa. “All the time.” Travis replied.
Stuart pointed at me and said, “That’s Tom.”
Travis laughed, “Well, I guess I have to travel more than a thousand miles from home to find a place where nobody knows me.” We all shared a good laugh about that. We said our farewells and our group got ready to go fishing.
Stu was putting his things away in the Scamp. He came out and told me there was a mouse in the trailer. I assured him there was not. “We don’t have mice in our camper.” Stu showed me his backpack.
“Then what’s this?” There was a small hole chewed in the mesh pocket on the side and another hole chewed through his package of sunflower seeds.
I examined the damage. “It looks like a mouse chewed it.” Then warned him, “You better not have brought mice in your backpack, into my Scamp.”
It was cold and cloudy when we launched the canoes on Devilfish Lake about a mile away. The fish were biting okay but they were mostly little guys, so everything went back in the water. Stu had a few nicer fish on his line, but each popped off the hook before he got them in the boat. Now, as guys will do, we were keeping track of who caught how many fish.
Stu tried to take credit for the three fish that got away but I wasn’t going to let him count them. “It’s catch-and-release.” He insisted.
“Yes, but you have to catch them before you can release them.” I said, “Besides, you didn’t release them, the fish released themselves.” Stu continued to justify that he did catch them. “How many points would you get for those fish in a tournament?” I asked him. Stu mumbled something, then admitted they would not get any points. After a couple hours of fishing, the wind started to pick up and the water was getting choppy. It was a good time to head back to camp.
We feasted on brats, then sat around the campfire having a few beers, telling stories and making our plans for the next day.
We started our day by hiking into the High Falls on the Pigeon River; the border between the United States and Canada. The falls were beautiful as always. From there we visited the trading post at Grand Portage and a few other sites before heading back to camp.
After dinner we were gathered at the campfire. “I got a present for you.” Stu told me. “I set it up in the camper.” He and I walked to the Scamp. Stu bent over and picked up a mouse trap from the floor. There was a mouse in it. “Well, would you look at that?” He said, then picked up a second trap, presenting another mouse.
“Where did you get those?” I asked Stuart.
“I bought the traps at the C-store in Grand Portage, today.”
“No, I meant where did you get real mice to put in your traps?” I insisted, “Because I don’t have mice in my Scamp.” Stu shook his head over my denial and reset the traps before we went out to join the other guys by the fire. A little later he went back to the Scamp for something and returned to the fire with another mouse in a trap. “This is crazy.” I said, “We’ve never had mice in the Scamp.”
I suppose it was around midnight when we finally retired for the night. I gave Stu the bigger bed in the back because he is much taller than me. I took the couch in the front. I pulled the covers up to my chin and fell asleep with my right arm outside the blanket. Shortly after dozing off, I felt something moving on my arm. “Is it a fly?” I wondered, “Maybe a bug? Egads, it better not be a spider.” Still half asleep, I contemplated the possibilities.
It had creepy little feet that gripped my skin like a June bug, but it was too late in the year for beetles. Just then it occurred to me, the feet were spread too far apart to be an insect. “Good God, it’s a mouse!” I whispered with alarm, while remaining perfectly still. “I’ve got a flipping mouse crawling on my bare arm!”
I lifted my arm slowly to turn on the light. The critter hung on for a moment, then I felt it jump off my arm, on to the covers on my chest. Still in the dark, I quickly grabbed the edge of my blanket with both hands. Giving it a good, fast shake, I flung the intruder across the camper. I heard it hit the wall of the Scamp and I quickly turned on the light and jumped out of bed. I grabbed a flashlight and checked both traps. They were empty and I couldn’t find the mouse.
I am not afraid of mice, but I will not, WILL NOT share my bed with them. I crawled back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin and tried to go back to sleep. Needless to say, I did not sleep soundly.
It was three in the morning when I heard a noise. I awoke and listened. I was pretty sure the mouse was on the counter rustling around. I got up and looked for him, but he wasn’t there. When I laid back down, I heard it again. Again, I got up to investigate but found nothing. As soon as I turned the lights off, the noise resumed. I got up a third time, this time checking the traps. Sure enough, there was a mouse in the trap, trying to get away with it. I put the critter outside by the others. The rest of the night was calm.
The next morning, Stu presented me with yet another catch from overnight. We broke down the campsite and moved to another campground – not that we’re scared by the mice, because we’re not. We are manly men, but because we had a site reserved at the end of the Gunflint trail.
We fished, hiked and explored all through the day, then retired to another evening campfire. I also caught two more mice. In all, seven mice perished during the men’s outing.
Stu pointed out that he caught four mice and I only caught three. “Not so, my friend.” I told him, “There was also the mouse on my arm. So, as I see it, we are tied at four mice each.”
Stu insisted that I did not catch that mouse, while I insisted I did. “How many points would you get for that mouse in a tournament?” Stuart asked. Hmph! He had me using the same logic I used on him. I conceded, Stu caught the most mice.
The next morning, I fixed an egg scramble for breakfast. Marty told me he looked over my Scamp and had a pretty good idea how the mice were getting in. “There’s a gap in the weather stripping at the bottom of your door.” He said, “If you put a new rigid foam seal there, I think it would keep them out.” I thanked him and said I would look into it at home.
Back at my house. Stu, Martin and Marty took hot showers. We said our farewells and they began their long trek home to Iowa. I told Melissa about the mice. “What? I let you guys use the camper for four days and you bring it back infested with mice!”
“It’s not infested,” I argued, “we got them all.” We had two days to get the Scamp ready for our next trip; heading west to Colorado. All the bedding was stripped, curtains were removed, the cabinets were emptied and the Scamp went through an antiseptic sterilization.
In Colorado, we set up camp on the edge of Molas Lake, near Silverton. The elevation was 10,505 feet above sea level. The elevation at our home on the north shore is around 650 feet. Both of us were finding it a little difficult to breath while acclimating to the thinner air. We finally got to sleep well after midnight.
Around three in the morning, there was some sort of ruckus in the camper. Melissa sprang up from her pillows and quickly turned on the light. Our dog June was sitting upright in the dark, pressed hard against the side of the bed trying to stay clear of our black cat, Edgar, who seemed to be possessed.
On the floor in front of Edgar, one mouse had already been slain. He had another in his mouth that wasn’t done yet. I tried to get the mouse from him, but the closer I got, the more Edgar snarled and growled like a wild panther in the woods. It was amazing how our nice, good-natured cat took on a whole new demeanor, that of a great hunter when an intruder encroached upon his territory. I didn’t how to get the mouse from him. I was considering cowering next to June to wait this event out.
Melissa told me, “Hold the mouse by the tail, and gently lift Edgar by the scruff. He’ll let go of the mouse.” I did as she instructed, but first put a heavy leather work glove that I use around the campfires on my right hand. I’m not afraid of mice, but this thing was still kicking and I wasn’t going to be bitten. As soon as I lifted Edgar by the nape, he let go of the mouse. I took the now expired mouse and the other mouse Edgar had caught, outside and placed them next to the fire ring.
Back inside the Scamp, I washed my hands then sat down on the floor next to June. “Man, Edgar looked like a wild cat the way he handled those mice.” June said. “It was kind of scary.”
“Yeah, I know.” I agreed then boasted, “Did you see the way I took that mouse from Edgar? Pretty cool, huh?”
June replied, “How do you suppose Mom knew how to make Edgar let go of that mouse?”
“Mom?” I questioned, “I’m the one who took the mouse away from the vicious hunter.”
“But Mom had to tell you how to do it.” June argued.
“Not so,” I defended, “I just…”
From the mattress top above us came a voice, “Both of you! Turn off the lights and go to bed.” We did as we were told. There were no more incidents the rest of the night.
The next morning, Edgar was his usual charming, goodnatured self. When I checked next to the fire ring, both mice were gone. The same thing happened with the mice Stuart and I caught on the Gunflint and Arrowhead trails. A really cool thing about nature – nothing goes to waste. Something will always come along and consider them an easy meal.
At the end of the camping trips, I tallied and shared the battle results with June. “In the Great Mouse Hunt; defending the Scamp, keeping it safe from pesky intruders; Stu was the main warrior. I came in second and Edgar finished third.”
“Not so fast handing out those awards, my friend.” Edgar said, as he jumped down from the front bunk and moseyed his way to the bed, then asserted, “As I see it, I won.”
“How do you figure that?” June and I both asked.
Edgar paced back and forth like the great detective; Sherlock Holmes in a black trench coat, tied at the waist, a double-billed deerstalker hat and smoking a pipe with a long swooping handle and large bowl. He was about to solve the mystery. Edgar Holmes explained. “It is true, Stu did catch the most with four mice. But more mice came in, allowing Dad to catch three mice. But still more came in. Even though I only caught two, no more mice came into the trailer under my watch. Therefore, it is I who holds the title as the greatest defender of the Scamp.
June said, “But Edgar, this contest was only among the men.”
Edgar gave June a firm look, “I am still one of the men,” then glared my way, “even though there was that most unfortunate ‘snipping incident’ which you initiated.”
I looked the other way, swallowed hard, then told June, “He has a valid point. In the contest of mice and men, Edgar wins.”
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